eCoaching Tip 2 Online Discussions – Why and How of Using Discussion Forums

February 4 2006 (Refreshed 2012; reviewed 2018)

eCoaching Tip 2: Online Discussions – Why and How of Using Discussion Forums

1. How should I use the online discussion areas of my course management system? What type of class activities are they good for?

The purpose of planned discussions in an online course is the same as it is in a classroom-based course. Discussion activities provide a way for learners to process, analyze and synthesize information. Many class activities are “receptive” activities in which students are reading, listening and taking notes while identifying key points and recording examples, etc. Discussion activities give students a chance to reflect on receptive activities, say what they think and know, and respond to other students’ ideas. Often it is only when students are responding to a question or to another students’ posting do they begin to know what they think or know, or sometimes, more importantly, what they don’t know.

Bottom line — discussion activities give students a chance to integrate incoming knowledge with their existing knowledge structures. Think of discussions as a time for student to practice, to think and to develop ideas with the other students. We often talk about developing a learning community. Discussion activities can help develop a learning community by providing time and opportunity to explore and develop ideas collaboratively. These types of activities can help crystallize students’ thoughts before exam time and be a tool for developing critical thinking abilities.

2. How are questions for online discussions different from questions in class discussions?

A primary distinction between online discussion questions and class discussion questions is that online discussion questions are not spontaneous. Online discussion questions are planned out in advance as part of the overall design of a course. Planning questions in advance ensures a focus on questions related to the desired skills and behaviors of a course.

A good design approach is to focus a discussion question or set of questions on a topic that addresses  two-three core concepts as applied in various scenarios. This helps students build knowledge frameworks around the core concepts, and link this new knowledge to existing knowledge.

3. How many discussion questions should be posted in a course each week?

As with many questions, the answer to “how many” is that “It depends.” It depends on whether questions are short answer essay questions that require students to apply core concepts in specific professional situations; if the questions are more complex, requiring students to think deeply about what they think, or problem-solving questions that require students to search out new relevant information and develop or work with scenarios. Also, some questions often require students to respond to and evaluate the postings from the other students.

Another consideration is the number of other assignments and activities due in that week. For short-answer essay questions, a general rule of thumb is three discussion questions per week, if there are no other assignments due in the week. For more complex questions, one discussion question per week is probably realistic. For those weeks when major projects or exams are scheduled, there may be no discussion questions. In those weeks, students may use the general class posting areas for giving and receiving help and discussing their projects.

4. Are there guidelines or requirements for student responses to discussion questions?

First, a point about scheduling and writing responses to questions. Learners should be encouraged to post as early in the week as possible in order to maximize the opportunity for peer and faculty response.

For example, one strategy for short answer essay questions is for learners to be required to post a response to the question and then respond to the responses of at least two other peers. In this scenario it is often useful to require students to post their initial personal responses by Wednesday, providing time in the latter part of the week for students to respond to student postings.

Here are some additional guidelines that some faculty have found useful for guiding student responses to discussion questions. These guidelines can be posted to the discussion area as reminders to students.

    • Postings should be evenly distributed during the discussion period, rather than concentrated on one day or at the beginning and/or end of the discussion time.
    • Postings should be a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of two paragraphs for short-answer essay questions.
    • Avoid postings that are limited to ‘I agree’ or ‘great idea’, etc. If you agree or disagree with a posting then say why you agree by supporting your statement with concepts or quotes from the readings or by bringing in a related example or experience.
    • Address the question or topic as much as possible, keeping on topic and not letting the discussion stray.
    • Incorporate where possible, quotes from the articles that support your postings and include appropriate reference and page numbers.
    • Recognize and respond to others’ responses to create threads of thought in a discussion, showing how ideas are related and linked.
    • Weave into your posting, where possible, related prior personal knowledge gained from experience, prior coursework or work experience, discussions, and readings, etc.
  • Use proper etiquette when posting, including proper language, spelling, grammar, etc. similar to the tone, etc. that you would use within a professional environment.

 5. What is the approximate best length of time for an online discussion, seminar or conference?

One week is the most common length of time, although, of course, a discussion board or conference involving an external expert may be shorter, such as 3-5 days. On the other hand, discussions boards with complex topics might be open or run for longer, up to two weeks.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by

 Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2019